98% of my small New England town was without power for nearly a week.
Imagine if it were 98% of the country. It’s more likely than you think…
Hurricane Isaias’ storm clouds came rolling in fast last month…
I was immersed in writing my recent American Consequences story on Venezuela and the threat of socialism to the U.S., occasionally glancing at the windows as the sky grew more ominous.
Finally, the loud wind and rain won my attention. Several trees crashed across the road, splitting the neighbor’s fence in half. Then, the lights went off… the TV entertaining my three children powered down… and my computer Wi-Fi was gone.
Usually, I’m better prepared for these things.
In my early days as a network news correspondent, I would “parachute” into many a hurricane. I knew the drill… I’d load up on fuel, water, snacks, cash, candles, a cooler, flashlights, and extra battery-powered chargers for my cellphone and computer. I’d make sure I was in a protected location where our live truck could still send a signal from high enough ground. And I knew to seek shelter during the worst of the storm…
It’s the reason why during Hurricane Sandy, when we lived in lower Manhattan, I insisted my husband and I book a set of hotel rooms for us and the kids uptown – on the high ground of Manhattan’s upper east side. “Just in case,” I told him. (He thought I was overreacting.)
We wound up at that hotel for more than a month. Clearly, my hurricane training comes in handy.
But not this time… I was unprepared for Isaias’ aftermath. I knew the storm was heading our way, but I hadn’t anticipated its full wrath.
A full 98% of our little New England community had no power for days. No one could make calls, gas up their car, get money from the ATM, or even buy food from the store.
Which got me thinking… and researching…
What if it was 98% of the country?
It’s much more possible than you think. It could happen tomorrow. And the result would be catastrophic. There would be no ability to connect with each other. No ability to get money from a bank. No ability for food to be distributed. Water access would be limited… and this is why a congressional report from 2016 predicts that if the lights went out – we risk losing 90% of the American population within a year.
In modern times, we take electricity and connectivity for granted. But as I saw on the ground in New Orleans, where I reported for six weeks during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we must be better prepared.
In fact, when you finish reading this piece, I think you’ll agree… When it comes to our power grid, we need to be on the offense.
Full disclosure, as I began my research for this story… I didn’t quite grasp how terrifying this possibility really was.
Editor’s note: As I researched, I wanted to turn away from writing this piece. And yet, I knew this needed to be written, because we must discuss this. Americans need to understand our own vulnerabilities. And we absolutely must address them. We cannot bury our heads in the sand. This is real. The naysayers allege that an EMP attack would never happen because no country would actually do that to another. However, in war… all bets are off. And, as we increasingly see new technology emerging to help developing worlds in their quest for dominance and world power, some countries might indeed decide they have every reason to do this… especially if they secure first strike advantage, thereby immobilizing the U.S. and, perhaps our allies.
And while we’ve known about this threat for some time… We’ve. Done. Nothing.
America’s Greatest Vulnerability
I had heard concerns about America’s greatest vulnerability from some of my military contacts throughout the years…
But somehow it always gets lost in the midst of the other day-to-day headlines.
For example, did President Donald Trump have a mini stroke that weekend a year ago when he went to the hospital? (I spoke to him by phone the Monday following the incident and he swore it was all routine.)
Meanwhile, did Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi really not wear a mask when she took an illegal trip to a local San Francisco hair salon… or was it a “setup”? (The hypocrisy is certainly frustrating, given she’s insisting everyone else wear a mask, but does it really matter?)
With these he-said, she-said stories taking up pundits’ time, who in the media can focus on a potential attack that could destroy America? Apparently, no one. And that needs to change.
America’s power grid is our greatest vulnerability.
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Four years ago, Congress was warned by its own Electromagnetic Pulse (“EMP”) Commission (in a 2016 report I referenced above) that an attack could “shut down the U.S. electric power grid for an indefinite period, leading to the death within a year of up to 90% of all Americans” due to looting, a lack of food and water, and desperation attacks.
According to one of the authors of that congressional report and the current head of the presidential EMP task force…
Everything is in blackout and nothing works. The EMP sparks widespread fires, explosions, and all kinds of industrial accidents. Firestorms rage in cities and forests. Toxic clouds pollute the air and chemical spills poison already polluted lakes and rivers. In seven days, the over 100 nuclear power reactors run out of emergency power and go Fukushima, spreading radioactive plumes over the most populous half of the United States. There is not even any drinking water and the national food supply in regional warehouses begins to spoil in three days. There was only enough food to feed 320 million people for 30 days anyway.
And yet, our government has repeatedly failed to address the issue.
An EMP is a short burst of electromagnetic energy. My friend Neil Grossman, mathematician, physicist, constitutional law scholar, global investor, vineyard owner, and former European central banker (yeah, just your all-around basic genius) described it to me like this, “Imagine going to a Rolling Stones concert, standing in front of the speakers and all of a sudden they are turned on for a second at maximum power. Now multiply that by say 100 billion or 100 trillion times, maybe more… It is the shortest, most powerful blast of energy you can imagine.”
He elaborated by saying this, “Imagine standing at ground zero when a thermonuclear detonation occurs… What you need to understand is electromagnetic waves are a form of energy.”
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One. Big. Massive. Destructive. Force of Energy.
In addition, Neil says, “the electromagnetic pulse issue is interesting and quite complicated. Sources can be either natural or man-made. Natural sources would include solar flares, which, when powerful, can be disruptive… as well as high energy cosmological sources like supernovae, collisions of black holes and the like… But, in general, natural EMP sources are so distant that the effect is relatively muted.”
The type to really worry about is the non-natural, or man-made EMP.
That EMP would destroy most of our country’s grid almost instantaneously. We’d have no way to get gas, no way to get money out of banks, no computers, no phones, no lights, no electricity… There would be no way to transport food or care for those in hospitals. It would be quite literally lights out. And there would be a massive loss of life as I mentioned before… According to government reports, 90% of Americans would die… and, well, your guess as to what happens then is as good as mine.
According to Grossman, “a high-altitude detonation of a powerful nuclear device would release a powerful EMP.” So powerful that scientists first discovered the EMP fallout of a hydrogen bomb during a test in 1962… Lights were burned out in Honolulu – 1,000 miles from the test location.
Which means what if China, perhaps using Iran or North Korea, ever wanted to use an EMP to take out the United States? Completely doable.
Far Worse Than Pearl Harbor
According to a new report released this summer from the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security, China now has the ability to conduct a massive EMP attack on the United States.
China has created at least three types of weapons designed to attack our electric grid… And these technologies (all stolen from the U.S.) would enable them to employ a “surprise Pearl Harbor” assault that could send Americans into a deadly blackout.
Dr. Peter Pry, the executive director of the EMP task force set up by the president, says China not only has these super-EMP weapons in its arsenal, it knows how to protect itself against an EMP attack from us, and has developed protocols to conduct a first-strike attack – even though it denies it would ever do that.
Just to reiterate… China currently has the capability to conduct a first strike, a massive attack on our power grid, and while China says it wouldn’t dream of it… we’d be naïve to assume China wouldn’t employ such horrific tactics. Gordan Chang, who wrote the book Coming Collapse of China, insists we cannot take China at its word… because the country “lies constantly.”
So if China has first-strike capability and could take out our grid – isn’t this the equivalent of China having a full-on nuclear arsenal and us having none?
Typically in nuclear warfare, there’s deterrence linked to the reality that if they fire on us, we’d fire back… However, according to this new report, we may never have that opportunity.
The EMP Task Force’s June report reveals that China has built a network of satellites, high-speed missiles, and super-electromagnetic pulse weapons that could effectively melt down our electric grid, sizzle our critical communications infrastructure, and even take out the ability of our aircraft carrier and military groups to respond.
And China is well aware of the power that it holds. Chinese military documents contain references to making EMP attacks against the United States as a way to succeed in war. Shen Weiguang’s World War, The Third World War – Total Information Warfare, the People’s Liberation Army’s quasi-textbook on information warfare, argues that China should be prepared to exploit an EMP offensively…
With their massive destructiveness, long-range nuclear weapons have combined with highly sophisticated information technology and information warfare under nuclear deterrence… Information war and traditional war have one thing in common, namely that the country which possesses the critical weapons such as atomic bombs will have ‘first strike’ and ‘second-strike retaliation’ capabilities… As soon as its computer networks come under attack and are destroyed, the country will slip into a state of paralysis and the lives of its people will ground to a halt…
Therefore, China should focus on measures to counter computer viruses, nuclear electromagnetic pulse… and quickly achieve breakthroughs in those technologies in order to equip China without delay with equivalent deterrence that will enable it to stand up to the military powers in the information age and neutralize and check the deterrence of Western powers, including the United States.
And according to the new EMP report, China did just that…
Truly, this report should have been the headline in every single news organization this summer, on every show, in every paper… But it wasn’t.
Bottom line: If China has this capability, then we have reason to be extremely cautious and extremely worried. This kind of attack could shut down our country, leaving us in a state of paralysis… and ultimately, whatever is left of our country, would be left hostage to China.
Chang partly blames the power companies, saying, “they’ve fought all sorts of attempts that require them to harden grids.” While true, that’s in part because these utilities are run as monopolies with controlled rates that are set by the government. As such, there’s little profit incentive for them to improve their infrastructure.
At this point, ensuring the safety of our grid should really be placed in the hands of the Department of Defense. Forget private companies… It’s now a matter of national security.
This isn’t the first time our government has been warned.
In 2008, the EMP Commission set up by Congress said a largely digitized U.S. could be left black for up to a year as a result of an EMP disruption.
And yet, apparently little was done to address the potential crisis. Eight years later, in 2016, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) reported that the federal government failed to implement a series of recommendations that had been made to prevent massive outages triggered by an EMP incursion.
Isn’t that always the way? Our government bureaucracy at work…
The GAO noted that the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) and the Department of Energy (“DOE”) had not “established a coordinated approach to identifying and implementing key risk management activities to address EMP risks” and that the securing of the grid was far from the top priority.
How is this not a top priority if 90% of America’s population could be wiped out within a year?
Can We Protect Ourselves?
We haven’t had the best track record preparing for disasters… Nonetheless, I certainly hope we can find a way to protect ourselves.
We should be working overtime to upgrade our power grid and detection equipment to make sure no country catches us by surprise.
Too often, our government fails to be preemptive. Instead, it overreacts after the fact.
Consider the late response to coronavirus… or the delayed reaction to the terror attack on 9/11… The warning signs are always there. Unfortunately, our society has a tendency to focus on gossipy, inconsequential news of the day… like “palace intrigue” at the White House or Kim Kardashian feuding with Kanye West. The news cycle and most media commentators are engrossed in frivolous moments.
Without pressure from the media and the public, some of these big issues get lost in the midst of everything else. In his most recent book, The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis explores the different ways the U.S. government manages its portfolio of risks. He concludes the government may be filled with too much bureaucracy and complexity to accomplish much in the way of its most critical missions. Our power grid is one such risk Lewis details…
The safety of the electrical grid sat at or near the top of the list of concerns of everyone I spoke with inside the Department of Energy (“DOE”). Life in America has become, increasingly, reliant on it. “Food and water has become food and water and electricity,” as one DOE career staffer put it…
The DOE had begun to gather the executives of the utility companies, to educate them about the threats they face. “They all sort of said, ‘But is this really real?’” said [the DOE’s Chief Risk Officer] MacWilliams. “You get them security clearance for a day and tell them about the attacks and all of a sudden you see their eyes go really wide.”
Kinda like mine were one-quarter of the way into my reporting for this story! Perhaps kinda like yours are, right now?
To President Trump’s credit, he signed an executive order in March 2019 instructing federal agencies to strengthen America’s infrastructure against EMP attacks…
It was the first order of its kind to establish a comprehensive policy to improve resilience to EMPs. Trump said at the time, “The vulnerability of U.S. critical infrastructure to cyber, physical, and electromagnetic attacks means that adversaries could disrupt military command and control, banking and financial operations, the electrical grid, and means of communication.”
He’s right. But the media largely ignored it that day, instead focusing on the Russia-Mueller saga… and we all know how that turned out.
I remember when I was new to this business and would want to talk about the Federal Reserve or tax policy… or even the incoming socialist policies in Venezuela… and others in my newsroom would wonder why I would so often “wonk out.”
I’ll tell you why… Because someone has to.
We need to understand the risks we face… We need to comprehend the challenges of an economically successful China and the military implications that brings. We need to understand the threat that is North Korea.
None of this is happening in a vacuum. We know, for example, there were warnings about pandemics before coronavirus hit… The challenge is that the government is too slow on the draw. Government waits until the last possible moment to do something… anything…
But in the case of an EMP attack, it will be too late. A lack of necessities like food and water, an ability to access money, a national communications cut-off… We are NOT prepared for any of these things. Too often, we take these things for granted. But, if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of understanding and preparing for the unexpected.
The beauty of the suburbs is that you can have a fully-stocked cellar. Shortages during coronavirus taught us the importance of being prepared for the unexpected. And, I suppose there’s a certain peace of mind you get knowing that, if totally necessary, you could go totally off the grid… for a while anyway.
For four days after Isaias hit and we lost power at my house, I was recording my podcast in my home studio, then running my computer to the local library where there was a cellular truck outside. I’d sit in the parking lot uploading my reports and making phone calls.
By Friday night, I’d had it. We packed up the kids and took off for my folk’s home in New Hampshire. I was hosting a week of radio shows… three hours a day… and knew I needed access to a decent Internet connection.
Just as I went on the second show that week… the power went out at my parent’s house, despite sunny skies and no storm in sight.
I had no connection to the radio station. Dead air was about to hit nationwide. The producers scrambled to recover a recording of the show I’d taped the day before and ran that…
It turned out, there was a local crew working on the Internet down the street… Within 30 minutes, I was back up… and managed to get back live on air. But I’ll tell you, our grid’s technology is far more fragile than you realize. And the amount we rely on it is scary.
Our government needs to step it up when it comes to protecting our much-needed infrastructure. We cannot live in a world in which our enemies could so easily take us out. As a country, we need to make this a priority.
Trish Regan is one of America’s brightest and most recognized conservative economic thought leaders. An award-winning journalist, Trish is the host of “Trish Regan’s American Consequences Podcast,” a weekly radio show dedicated to economic and political truth, as well as a columnist for several publications.